The following is an interview with Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne, co-authors of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas.
HH: What is Brainsteering, and how does it differ from brainstorming?
KC: Both brainstorming and Brainsteering are designed to help you generate ideas, but the way they do it is virtually 180-degrees different. Brainstorming is an unfocused activity that takes people’s creative energy and scatters it in all directions, rarely producing breakthrough ideas. Meanwhile, Brainsteering takes people’s creative energy and steers it in a consistently productive direction by following two key principles.
First, by asking what we call the Right Questions, people are able to approach their ideation challenge from a different perspective than ever before. Second, by using what we call the Right Process, people are able to add just enough structure to the process to focus their efforts. Following these two principles has consistently helped people come up with ideas they could never previously have imagined.
HH: What is your definition of the Right Question, and how can asking it help propel your business forward?
SC: A Right Question is one that forces you to focus your thinking, and to look at your ideation problem from a different perspective than you’ve ever done before—and once you ask the Right Question, you’ll find that right answers begin to flow fairly quickly.
So, for example, instead of asking an overly-broad, same-old-perspective question like, “How can we increase profits?”—at which point the mind reels with possibilities, doesn’t know where to focus, and wears out quickly—ask yourself a more focused Right Question like, “What’s the biggest hassle customers face when using products/services in our category, and how could we eliminate that hassle (in ways that others haven’t done already)?”, or, “Where are customers using my product/service in unusual ways, or in unusually large quantities, and how could I get more customers to do so?”
HH: What are the criteria for recognising the Right Question?
KC: A Right Question meets four criteria. First, as Shawn said, it forces you to look at your ideation problem from a different perspective than you have in the past – because if you always look at a problem from the same perspective, it becomes exponentially harder over time to think up new, high quality ideas.
Second, it focuses your thinking by placing certain limits on the conceptual space you must explore – because when people are told, “there are absolutely no constraints – just think outside the box!” their minds struggle to focus, and research shows they actually come up with fewer good ideas.
Third, although a Right Question creates certain boundaries, it doesn’t set those boundaries so tight that there could only be one answer – if the question is so narrow that there’s only one obvious and dominant answer, it won’t work.
Finally, a Right Question just plain succeeds – it’s one that, when you ask it, immediately makes you and others think of multiple, intriguing possibilities. When you find those kinds of questions, write them down and remember them for future use in other situations!
HH: How do you choose which Right Question to pursue?
SC: After you’ve built an arsenal of powerful Right Questions, the way to know which ones to use in a given situation is…to ask yourself more questions!
Does the question target an aspect of the problem that hasn’t received much attention in the past? Does it force a different perspective than you’ve taken in the past? Does the question itself suggest directions for answers that aren’t simply generic, but that meet the specific needs you have for this assignment? Is there information available that will actually answer the question (there’s a big difference between “we don’t know the answer to that question right now” – that’s fine – versus “there’s no way to ever know the answer” – that’s not fine.)? Does the question prompt ideas that your organisation will actually be willing and able to implement, or would it require such major changes in the status quo that you’d be wasting your time?
HH: How do you develop the Right Question?
KC: One great way to develop Right Questions is to read the list of 101 Right Questions in the Appendix of our book! Many of them could be useful to you in different situations even if you just copy them verbatim, while many others could be useful to you with just a bit of tailoring to your situation.
To develop your own list of Right Questions, every time you see a great new product or service – or a great new idea of any other kind – ask yourself, “What are three questions I could have asked that would have made me think of that idea?”
And last but not least, look at your own best past ideas – you know you’ve had some! – and ask yourself, “What questions were going through my mind at that time, implicitly or explicitly, that led me to that idea?”
HH: What role does analysis play in developing and executing the Right Question?
SC: Kevin and I believe that many people draw a false dichotomy between “being creative” and “being analytical.” In fact, analysis plays a major role in developing and executing the ideas that arise from asking the Right Questions.
Sometimes, you can use analysis to originate new ideas – the key, as we explain Chapters 4 and 5 of the book, is to do non-traditional analysis that will enable you to take a perspective that others haven’t taken in the past, thereby causing you to spot interesting anomalies and think up ideas that others haven’t thought up in the past. Then, further analysis can obviously be used to help you refine and successfully execute ideas.
Most new ideas are, by definition, average – therefore, it’s critical to figure out quickly which of your ideas has the potential to be truly great, then focus your development time and efforts on those high-potential ideas. The key there, as we explain in detail in Chapter 5, is to do the right amount of analysis at the right time, taking special care to truly understand the few critical issues (like your concept, the need it fulfils for your intended target audience, and the short list of practical operational issues that could kill your idea on the spot) before you waste your time developing detailed spreadsheets and financial projections (which you’ll do only after you’re sure that your idea isn’t a dud).
HH: How do you improve your odds of asking and answering the Right Questions?
KC: There are several actions you can take to get yourself “in the zone” more often and maximise your odds of asking and answering the Right Questions, as we detail in Chapter 6.
First, understand the impact of emotions on creativity, and use this knowledge to your advantage – for example, contrary to conventional wisdom, many people actually turn out better ideas when they are given certain stress-inducing constraints such as budget limitations and deadlines (versus being allowed to just “turn their minds loose to wander”).
Second, neutralize what we call “emotional overhead,” or those emotional attitudes that can pull you off course, by learning how to compartmentalise your thinking and then practicing that valuable skill until you’re an expert at it.
Third, understand your personal response to intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and tailor your idea generation process to your personal style (whether that means working more often by yourself or with a thought partner, working in long stretches or short bursts, working in the mornings or evenings, and so on).
HH: What is the best way to teach others how to ask and answer the Right Questions?
SC: When teaching others in your organisation to use the Brainsteering approach, you’ll find it’s best to show people that it works before trying to tell them exactly how to do it, because they’ll need to have faith and confidence in the Brainsteering approach before they’ll be willing to adopt the new behaviours that will be required to make them more productive and successful.
So, for example, you may want to run a small pilot project with a subgroup of people and create some killer new ideas before trying to spread the approach throughout your entire organisation.
Once people have faith that Brainsteering can work, they keys to successfully rolling out the approach throughout the organisation, including its junior staffers, are: (1) establish a commonly understood definition of what constitutes “good ideas” in your organisation, so junior staffers can recognise success (or failure) when they see it; (2) teach them the Brainsteering approach in manageable steps, beginning with the basics of Right Questions and adding subtleties from there; (3) delegate responsibilities to the junior staffers appropriately, building their experience and confidence (yet controlling your risk) as they come up the learning curve; and (4) overcome your own built-in reluctance to providing feedback to so-called “creative types” – after all, there really are bad ideas out there, and if you don’t tell a junior staffer when and how he’s missed the mark, you can’t expect him to improve.
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